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The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes

6 April 2013

9:00 AM

6 April 2013

9:00 AM

The press is now to be regulated under the supervision of a body created by Royal Charter. On the website of the Privy Council Office, it explains that a Royal Charter is ‘a way of incorporating a body … turning it from a collection of individuals into a single legal entity’. New grants of charters are reserved for ‘eminent professional bodies or charities which have a solid record of achievement’. A body with a Royal Charter ‘submits significant aspects of the control of its internal affairs to the Privy Council’ (which is currently presided over by Nick Clegg): ‘This effectively means a significant degree of government regulation.’ Such a body should normally have more than 5,000 members. The University of Cambridge seems to be the oldest chartered body (1231) and the College of Chiropractors the newest (2012): 999 have been created in our history. If the press body were to be made the 1,000th, it would fit none of the criteria. Under the government’s post-Leveson decision, a Royal Charter is to be bestowed upon a ‘Recognition Panel’ to recognise whatever system of press regulation is invented. This panel is not an eminent professional body or a charity and it has, as yet, no members and no achievement, solid or otherwise. No one has petitioned for it. So the ‘dab of statute’ turns out to be a euphemism for an exercise of the royal prerogative (i.e. government power) to invent a body for which the system was never designed, while ensuring as little answerability to Parliament as possible. The Privy Council website adds that there is a mechanism for ‘counter-petition’ and makes the encouraging point that ‘Any petition which is rendered controversial by counter-petition is unlikely to succeed.’ What are we waiting for?

Another semi-unconstitutional provision in the Royal Charter set-up is the rule that it can be altered only by a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Rules that increase the threshold for parliamentary votes naturally favour the executive against the rest. The same two-thirds rule is in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, which insists that the next general election must take place on 7 May 2015. What a mistake this feature of the coalition agreement is turning out to be. Because both parties to the coalition are locked together, come (almost) what may, they are behaving more and more negatively towards each other, starting election campaigns two years early. If the coalition could fall at any time, the paradoxical effect would be that each partner would have an incentive to make it work.


One reason I do not like professional football is that it seems fascistic. By that I mean that it promotes the worship of the team by the masses and foments contempt of all other teams. It demands blind loyalty, loves crowd displays and has a cult of uniforms and symbols. The fact that Paolo Di Canio is a fascist should qualify him well for his new post of Sunderland manager.

John Hayes is a very conservative Conservative, and a subtle student of human nature. So it is a good move of David Cameron to appoint him Minister without Portfolio and Senior Parliamentary Adviser (an absurdly aggrandised title for a job once done by the Prime Minister’s humble PPS). Mr Hayes will act as interpreter between No. 10 and the Tory back benches, which too often speak in different languages. I hope he advises, counter-intuitively, that Mr Cameron throw himself more upon the mercy of the House of Commons, and bring back the pre-Blair arrangement by which Prime Minister’s Questions happened twice a week instead of once. All entourages advise against this because they see it as wasting time and exposing their boss to attack. But in fact it is the best way for the Prime Minister to keep on top of what is happening in all departments and to learn directly what is worrying his MPs. His absence does not make their hearts grow fonder.

John Rogers, a retired teacher, was supposed to deliver a ‘mardle’ — a Suffolk word for a gossipy talk — in aid of the church of Letheringham in that county; but on the very morning he had a heart attack. Instead, he turned his thoughts (developed in the light of his heart attack) into a short, moving book, The Undelivered Mardle (DLT), just published. I have never read anything quite like it before, in prose. But one can recognise the genre — it is that of Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ and Philip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’. It has the same multum in parvo quality, the same sense of loss which, perversely, turns out to be gain. At breakfast one day, Rogers asked his grandson, who was looking out of the window and not eating, what he was thinking. The boy replied that he was ‘wondering two things — what is the meaning of life and what are we going to do today?’ In studying Letheringham church, Rogers shows, obliquely, how these two questions are related. His perception is sharpened by his near death. It is as if he finds himself writing his own elegy, having almost, like the youth in Gray’s original, rested his head ‘upon the lap of earth’.

The strange story that jockeys have been asked to ride more slowly in the Grand National on Saturday has not been explained. The demand to make the fences safer has made them more dangerous. If fences are lower, horses can run at them faster. Since their riders want to win, they will urge their horses on; so the authorities are trying, probably vainly, to discourage them. Similarly, the decision to remove the hard timber may well mean that gaps will be knocked out of jumps on the first circuit. Then the horses on the second circuit will tend to bunch for those gaps, creating a greater risk than would otherwise have been the case. In the whole of the first half of the 20th century, only 11 horses died in the National. That number has now been equalled in a fifth of that time — the last ten years, when ‘safer’ fences have been developed.


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